Windbreaks & Snow Fences

Image of windbreak

Windbreaks & Snow Fences

By Elizabeth Killinger, Nebraska Extension Educator

Anytime drought occurs, whether in the summer or winter, it makes us value whatever moisture we get, even snow. Snowstorms are a great way to see how plantings, like windbreaks, work and to test their effectiveness in slowing the winter winds and distributing snow.

Windbreak vs. Snow Fence
Windbreaks are a way to slow wind and the snow it carries. Most windbreaks are designed with one of two main objectives in mind: to spread the snow across a large area or to dump it in a relatively small area. The design depends on your objective for the windbreak. Those that distribute the snow over a large area, like field windbreaks, are tall and are relatively porous. This allows the snow to be spread out over the field and allow for a more even distribution of moisture. If capturing snow is your goal, the windbreak should have multiple rows and be planted close together. Once that snow begins to melt, it will provide the much needed moisture.

If you want to control blowing winds and to confine snow, a living snow fence might be the way to go. These types of "snow fences" you only have to install once, compared to every year with the traditional slat style snow fences. The benefits of living snow fences include a greater snow capacity, less maintenance once they are established, a longer life span, a wide range of benefits like wildlife habitat, and not to mention the aesthetic value. In major storms, the vertical slat snow fences can reach their snow storing capacity quickly. According to the Nebraska Forest Service, a three-row mature living snow fence with a height of 20 feet will store over 16 times more snow than a single-row slat-fence with a height of 3-4 feet.

There are a few rules to follow when thinking of installing a planting to control snow and wind. The living snow fence is most effective when it is placed perpendicular to the prevailing winter winds, usually from the northwest in Nebraska. There should be plenty of room on the leeward side of the windbreak for drifts. Location of corners and roads also plays a role in the location of the windbreak. Trees should be planted no closer than 200 feet from corners or intersections. This will allow for traffic visibility and sight lines for vehicles.

Choosing Windbreak Trees
The plant material that you use is also important in windbreak design. The species will vary depending on the climate, soil type, windbreak objectives, and most importantly the space that is available for the plant to grow. When choosing plant material, remember the growing conditions and available space. This will cause you less headache in the end. Species diversity is key with windbreak design. Windbreaks that are made up of one or two species are more susceptible to insects or diseases wiping out the entire windbreak if an infestation or infection occurs. Diverse windbreaks are still functional if an infestation occurs with one species.

Is your windbreak looking a little ragged? Did it do its job of slowing winter winds and dumping snow load? If your windbreak is mature, between 30-50 years old, it might be time to rejuvenate to have it working its best. Your local Natural Resource District office, NRD, might be the place to turn. They offer low-cost seedlings trees for planting farm or livestock windbreaks, wildlife habitat, living snow fences, or other plantings. For more information about the NRD Conservation Tree Program contact your local NRD office. You can also purchase trees from local nurseries or garden centers.

Windbreak Design & Management

What is the best design for a windbreak? The answer to that question depends on the intended purpose of the windbreak, and the characteristics of the site where the windbreak will be located.

Windbreaks can be planted to enhance wildlife, provide snow protection for humans and livestock, provide wind protection to dwellings in both winter and summer, prevent soil erosion by wind from farm fields, reduce water runoff from agricultural lands, or provide additional income. The final design of the windbreak should be based on objectives determined for your individual site.

Several great University of Nebraska publications are available providing guidance to design your windbreak and manage it for years to come.